Desperate Measures

Charlottesville area officials are studying the option of eliminating fares for the municipal bus system in the hopes of stimulating ridership, according to the Daily Progress. A recent study by the Washington state transportation system said that a free system could increase ridership by 30 percent. On the other hand, Charlottesville and Albemarle County would lose $485,000 in revenue, or 10 percent of the operating budget for the Charlottesville Transit Service.

Said David Slutzky, a member of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization which is considering the idea: “We don’t make people pay to take roads here, so why should they pay to get off the roads?”

My gut reaction to this idea is, are they crazy? According to Bacon’s principles of transportation economics, every mode of transportation should pay its own way. People who drive on roads pay for the vast majority of the cost to build and maintain those roads, mainly through tolls and state and federal gasoline taxes. The object of public policy should be to get them to pay 100 percent of the cost — not as we have done in Virginia this past year to sever the connection between driving and road funding.

Likewise, transit systems should pay their own way as well. If the Charlottesville bus system collects only 10 percent of the revenue it takes to operate, what does that tell us about the bus system? Either that the costs are scandalously high, operations are scandalously inefficient, or demand is scandalously low.

According to the Charlottesville Transit Service website, the system provided a little more than one million passenger trips last year. That translates into about $4.60 per passenger trip. I’m no expert in transit economics, but that doesn’t strike me as excessively high. The unwillingness of the population to pay a nominal fare, I suspect, stems from a lack of demand for the service. The transit service, I would hypothesize, does not provide the flexibility of routes and times, or the reliability, that people require.

Flipping the problem around, though, I can see what Slutzky & Company are driving at. That one million passengers translates into roughly 2,750 passengers per day, which translates into 2,750 car trips eliminated. The bus service does get cars off the road.

Does the elimination of those trips mitigate enough congestion to warrant the expenditure of more than $4 million a year in public dollars? Let’s do some calculations. As of the 2000 Census, there were about 50,000 households in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The average household generates about 10 trips per day, implying 500,000 trips. Thus, the transit system eliminates one out of roughly 180 trips.

Would the expenditure of nearly $500,000 dollars a year for fare-free bus travel, resulting in the elimination of roughly 800 more car trips per day, be a good investment? I can’t say because I don’t know what the alternative investments are, nor how much congestion they might relieve. But that’s one question the Charlottesville MPO should ask itself rather than studying the free-fare option in isolation.

An even better question the MPO should ask is this: Instead of operating a transit system at a cost to taxpayers of $4 million to $5 million a year, should the region shut down the transit service and allow free market competition for shared ridership services?

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20 responses to “Desperate Measures”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well.. in one little thread – you’ve managed to tee up the core public policy issue with regard to transportation.

    Part involves the concept of letting people “vote” for the preferred mobility mode…

    part involves understanding why – after more than 50 years of what was an apparently successful “user pays” fuel tax approach to funding – the “model” no longer “works” without major increases in the tax along the lines of 25 to 50 cents.

    and part involves.. understanding that the gas tax user fee – charges the same amount no matter whether someone drives on empty rural roads or the height of rush hour on heavily congested roads.

    Right now.. someone who wants to drive a SUV at the height of rush hour.. say for 30 miles… they pay about 25 cents for that trip.

    The same folks that do that.. rail about the fact that it costs the taxpayer $5 (or more) to send a transit user on a similar trip.

    The TOLL Road folks.. will tell you that 25 cents for a 30 mile trip on roads that they will build is a real laugher… that it will be more like $5 or $10 dollars.

    So.. the perfect storm for the pro-road folks… would be to implement congestion pricing .. that costs the $5 or $10 for each rush hour trip – and give that money to transit so it can operate fare-free…

    heee heee heee… 🙂

  2. Waldo Avatar

    The problem that the city is trying to solve here is the social obstacles to riding public transit. The Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) is known as being the mode of transit for poor people, especially poor blacks. The city created an aggressive TV advertising campaign in 2002 with well-known local people explaining why they choose to use CTS as their primary means of transportation. (I was featured in one ad, oddly enough.) It failed to have the desired effect.

    The hope now is that the city can both demystify and desegregate CTS. The two major obstacles are confusion about when/where the buses run and how much it costs. Middle-class residents often don’t ride the bus because they have absolutely no idea how much it costs, whether they need exact change, if they have to have coins or if bills will do, which route line goes where, how to know if the bus will get there on time, etc., etc. The city’s solution to this is a two-parter.

    First, the city intends to add location-broadcasting GPSs to every bus, and provide a website where people can see the real-time and historical locations of every bus. The sort of person who will have internet access and want to see this information is precisely the sort of person who does not ride CTS now, but would if they could understand the route system better.

    Second is, of course, the city’s intention to drop fares. It’s my understanding that they don’t intend to drop fares forever. Rather, they want to do so just long enough that the people who live on the bus line and complain about traffic now will start riding CTS and become accustomed to it. Then they can charge a buck or two a ride and people will be happy to pay it, having learned that it’s worth the money.

    When selling anything — a service or a product — it’s important to make it clear to people what they’re getting for their money. With something as complex and fundamentally in opposition to people’s normal life patterns as an entire bus system, having a free fare day once a year and putting up route maps just doesn’t do the trick. Waiting for the city to achieve a density where people will take public transit out of sheer anger and desperation will likely take many, many years. Better not to wait for things to get that bad, provide 3-5 years of free service, and then charge for it again.

    Besides, what’s cheaper: a few years of free bus service or widening the town’s half dozen two-lane major in-town arteries? The former, of course, by a factor of at least 50.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I hate to say it – or maybe it’s high time that more people say it.

    It’s not the price that turns off folks nor the ridership as long as the trip itself is relatively safe.

    What turns people off is simple stuff:

    1. – not dependable – in terms of schedules and seat availability

    2. – the “how do I get from the bus stop to my actual destination”?

    3. – how to carry goods/purchases

    I’d take bus from my home to my doctor’s appointments.. if it came to my house and it went to my doctor’s office.

    Take your own situation.. and ask yourself the same question if you wanted to take transit from your home (or office) to your Doctor (or pick a destination)…

    Money is not the problem for most folks… it’s time… and aggravation…

    Would I rather fight my way through congestion for an hour .. rather than wait for a bus.. and/or the walking travel time – for an hour?

    My point is that if you REALLY and truly want transit to “work” – you have to think of the riders – as customers who want a service that is reasonably competitive to personal mobility options.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Thanks, Waldo, your comment helps fill in some of the gaps in logic. I agree, for middle-class bus riders, one buck for a fare is pocket change — their latte double cappucino would cost them a lot more. Dropping fares long enough to induce people to give the bus system a whirl is just good marketing.

    The idea of adding a GPS capability also makes some sense: It would address the issue of reliability and predictability. If people could check at home the progress of the buses along their routes, they could determine exactly when to walk out the door and arrive at the bus stop, minimizing their wait.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think the mindset of transit operators is wrong.

    They see themselves as catering to a small segment of riders who have no choice but to take transit – rather that it being the mobility machine that it (in my mind) ought to be.

    Their goal should be to pursue how to implement the answers to a POLL of non-transit riders reasons why they won’t ride transit.

    And the answers must address multi-modal concepts that provide solutions to those who do not live where transit currently is.

    METRO – in NoVA – for instance – treats modes beyond METRO itself, including bus transit and the concept of bus rapid transit – as separate and apart from METRO.

    In my own area – our transit considers it’s mission to be the “underserved”… rather than the thousands of daily commuters who would gladly park in a carpool lot and take convenient transit to buses or rail.

    I think it goes back to .. the folks who currently operate transit – and their view of what their mission is… and is not….

    Until that changes.. no matter what they say – it’s what they do (or do not do) that sends the message that prospective riders actually hear.

    And if what they “say” with their actions .. is .. that “we choose not to address comprehensive mobility solutions… then that is what folks will hear.

    free rides.. is like giving away soda pop – in a flavor that no one wants…

  6. Rodger Provo Avatar
    Rodger Provo

    Jim Bacon –

    I would encourage you to inquire about
    the status of similar programs in
    Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.

  7. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    “The Problem with cars…”

    A subtitle in Chapter 2 of BRIDGES upon which we are now working.

    The current direct cost of moving an Autonomobile from point A to point B is NOT the cost of relying on Autonomobiles for mobility and access.

    First there are the indirect cost of the A to B trip that are not yet charged to the driver — air quality, climate change, etc.

    Next there are the costs of maintaning the roadway system. The reason there are multi-buillion dollar infrastructure shortfalls in every New Urban Region is that the current system is not paying the total direct cost. Victoria Transport Policy Institute which Jim Bacons has quote in past years has some good data on this and other currently unmet costs.

    Next there is the cost of parking which — based on Don Schoup who Jim Bacon has quoted and others — is subsidized around 96 % by non-vehicle use related payments.

    The big ticket item, however, is that the use of the Autonomobile — the space to drive and park the vehicle when not in use — disaggregates human settlement pattern and thus all human activity in such profound ways that almost every good and service is impacted.

    Fairly allocate the costs and few would drive and shared vehicle systems would be a great bargin.

    It is not a $0.25 or $0.50 a gallon shortfall, it is $2.50 to $5.00 a gallon.


  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Say your normal day means you encounter 180 vehicles during your travels.The question is whether you (along with your fellow drivers) would rather pay $500,000 more in order to go reduce that number of vehicles encountered each day by 0.3 vehicles or whether you would rather be paid $5 million and have to endure encountering 181 cars per day……

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “understanding that the gas tax user fee – charges the same amount no matter whether someone drives on empty rural roads or the height of rush hour on heavily congested roads.”

    So what?

    Shouldn’t the person that gets to enjoy the privilege of having too much infrastructure pay for the privilege at leastas much as someone who suffers for not having enough?

    Peak load capacity is really expensive: whether it is on rural roads or city roads. The fact that we have spent relatively lavishly on rural citizens shouldn’t let them off the hook for paying for what they get.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “and give that money to transit so it can operate fare-free…”

    But that puts you right back in contradiction mode. If transit is underpriced, then people will use it too much – same as with roads.

    What we need to do is to stop looking at them as competitors, because they are not: they offer different services, and different amenities. The trick is to supply the correct amount of each, and price each accordingly.

    We can’t hope to do that in the present “cars are bad and transit is good” political environment.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “I’d take bus from my home to my doctor’s appointments.. if it came to my house and it went to my doctor’s office.”

    That’s what Jitneys do. Door to door service combined with a flexible route.

    That is how you make shared rides the mobility machine it could be. With modern computer algorithms solving the rider/destination/availability problem on the fly, and with modern cellular technology telling the passengers when to be ready, it could work.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jitney buses – Ray has hit the nail on the head. Local governments could do much to make measureable improvements in transit, but allowing large numbers of licensed (for safety and security) jitney buses. They would likely do a better and more efficient job of serving underserved communities; provide for entry into the business community; etc.

    But they would also step on toes — bureaucrats, union transit workers, big construction firms, etc. Government is more interested in protecting its favored few than in making progress.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “charges the same amount no matter whether someone drives on empty rural roads or the height of rush hour on heavily congested roads.”

    So what?”

    if the gas tax is supposed to be a true user fee – then the costs should be allocated based on what you use.

    If you use.. very expensive infrastructure – a consequence of many people driving at rush hour and you’re paying at the rate of the some person who only needs a rural road – then you have a problem with paying for more infrastructure.

    You simply won’t generate the necessary funds to improve the rush-hour infrastructure.

    guess what? THAT is the problem!

    if you what a FAIR – User Pays system – then each person should pay for their fair share based on what they USE….

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: jitneys and shared vehicle systems et al.

    Our transportation system needs to be a comprehensive network that functions as an integrated network.

    Why do we have different agencies responsible.. for roads, rail, transit, jitney’s etc?

    Worse – these separate agencies, at best, give lip service to the concept of multi-modal.

    VDOT would rather build a new road than provide multi-modal transit facilities.

    METRO would rather have more stations – than providing adequate multi-modal for potential new ridership for existing stations.

    We don’t see Jitney’s as part of the integrated system but rather something to “fill in the blanks” – and not a specific strategy to extend the utility of the transit system.

    I hesitate to say that transit should operate the jitneys and the reason why is my previous comments in that transit operators don’t accept a comprhensive mobility mission but rather one part of it – which they advocate and defend but eschew the mobility needs – not met – beyond their own self-perceived mission.

    But .. at some level – some agency needs – at the least – understand and coordinate mobility – as the (complete) collection of various component parts of an integrated transportation network – vice having multiple agencies operating (in my mind) myopically and often self-servingly… to take no responsibility for what “does not work” beyond their own perceived mission parameters.

    This is the problem.

    We think the answer to dysfunctional transit is .. Jitney’s. What happened to cabs?

    what happened to zip cars?

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry what about the congestion toll piece of the puzzle

    Should someone that commutes 100 miles at 65 MPH on open interstate pay more than someone in NoVa who goes 40 miles at 30 MPH?


    On the greater question of buses buses are there for people that dont have cars period

    Outside of rush hour it is never faster, quicker, cheapr, or more conveninet for the average person to take a bus instead of driving.

    The final straw is that most people go to multiple places. With a bus you would have to have all of your destinations on a route and be able to change lines.

    A car allows maximum choice and mobility at a much lower cost.


    Zip Cars are an excellent idea and work in the Arlington corridor.

    However mass transit at most will only be a 10% solution. For the other 90 of the population cars are much more practical and less expensive.

    Converting living situations from the 10% mass transit practicality to a higher percentage is up for debate and is what this transportation/settlement pattern/growth issue bascially boils down to.


  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “what about the congestion toll piece of the puzzle”

    “Should someone that commutes 100 miles at 65 MPH on open interstate pay more than someone in NoVa who goes 40 miles at 30 MPH?”

    Congestion pricing – guarantees a level-of-service – a predictable transit time for q quid-pro-quo transaction and the cost is based on the (time) length of your trip – not the speed at which you travel.

    You are essentially billed for the distance on a per mile toll charge – but again you’re buying a predictable trip time.

    A gas-tax funded trip charges you the same on a per distance basis no matter what time of day you travel or what kind of road – and what you pay has absolutely no connection to congestion levels or what impact they might have on the length of your trip.

    Paying a higher gas tax – won’t necessarily get one a shorter trip time on a given road- ever … in many cases.

    In fact, roads funded from gas taxes – are not prioritized with regard to customers transit time needs but rather a gazillion other factors not the least of which is politics. It’s like a lottery.

    That’s why I say calling the gas tax a “user fee” is not the same as toll “user fees” at all where there is a direct quick-pro-quo expectation.

  17. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    A lot of good thoughts but the bottom line is transport systems that balance the travel demand of functional settlement patterns.

    Jitneys and other shared-vehicle systems work much better when there is a rational and sustainable distribution of origins and destinations.

    The reason for irrational distribution and the dependence on Autonomobiles is the direct, indirect and systemic subsidies supporting a fialed system of provinging vehicle mobility.


  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Outside of rush hour it is never faster, quicker, cheapr, or more conveninet for the average person to take a bus instead of driving.”

    but that’s the exact issue – where transit COULD and SHOULD make a difference!

    Transit’s “sweet spot” IS rush hour where the majority of the “trips” are fairly straight forward .. home to work and work to home trips – not all of them – all of the time – but most of them – most of the time.

    There used to be a concept of “Express” … where more buses would come online to swoop in and serve surging rush hour commuters.. then “shrink” back to less buses on am more spread-out schedule after rush hour was over.

    I, quite honestly don’t know how transit works in NoVa or even Charlottesville but my view is that they have to have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish – and “expanding ridership” is basically not very focused – in terms of their perceived mission.

    But even if it were, it would seem to me that fundamentally, they should want to know… how to attract and keep the folks who .. tried transit once or twice and then swore never to ride it again.

    In other words – find out why people won’t use it BEFORE plans are made to try various methods to attract more riders. You’ve basically go to know what it is that riders want… if you want to address the reasons for low ridership.

    It seems to me .. that the current concept of transit at rush hour is – to establish a punitive environment that will drive motorists to use transit – no matter how bad transit is perceived as an option.

    It doesn’t seek to become a competitive/advantaged OPTION but rather a last resort.

    I give credit to VRE – which IS – by the way – operated exclusively as a RUSH HOUR service.

    They know their role.. and they know what is important to their customers.

    They have a continuing and chronic problem with CSX owning the tracks and calling the shots – which can and does preclude VRE schedules – and the net result to VRE is that on-time performance has been seriously affected – and VRE management knows that this is the death knell for many riders.

    If transit wants to expand it’s ridership in C’ville or NoVa, the logical gain would be at rush hour but in order to do that – it needs to take a page from VRE and recognize that rush-hour customers will not tolerate unpredictable service – not matter what it costs – even if it is free.

    and I’d point out.. that when folks go to Europe – what is the thing that impresses? Answer: the trains run on time.

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    FYI – Headline:

    Express-bus debut draws few riders
    New GRTC service is between Richmond and Fredericksburg

    “To the surprise of GRTC officials, the buses had no passengers when they left a parking lot ….”
    “GRTC is offering the service through a contract with Martz National Coach Works. The $250,000 contract runs one year with two one-year options. It’s being funded by a federal grant to help relieve traffic congestion or improve air quality.

  20. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    “Transit’s “sweet spot” IS rush hour where the majority of the “trips” are fairly straight forward .. home to work and work to home trips – not all of them – all of the time – but most of them – most of the time.”

    Did you say shared vehicle system operators have the wrong mindset? The above quote is exatly the wrong mind set.

    Let us start with the fact that only 25% of the current vehicle trips are home to work / work to home trips.

    Next look at labor: How do you hire operators to work the AM and the PM shift and take off in the middle of the day?

    So you have a fully automated system with no drivers. Great but now there is a necessity to use that capacity 24 / 7.

    The core problem is system capacity. The classic bottle neck is the capacity needed to pump only one full cycle a day.

    Try designing an elephant (or a donkey) with a heart that beats once a day.

    The failure to understand that a large New Urban Region cannot be served by a in in the AM, out in the PM system is why with METRO most of the trains leave most of the stations most of the time essentially empty.

    Shared-vehicle systems work best where there is a rational distribution of origins and destinations due to a system wide station-area balanced. That is the characteristic of a New Urban Region made up of Balanced Communities composed of Balanced Villages — many of which have a shared-vechiel system station in their Zentrum.

    There really is no alternative.


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